Perhaps only very simple people are not hypochondriacs at one time or another. For the intelligent and inquiring, a measure of hypochondria may be a necessary self-soothing. Anxiety about a specific symptom is more bearable and easier to rationalise than the diffuse ontological malaise that used to be known as spiritual despair. It is easier to say ‘my knee is killing me,’ because we know it isn’t, than to dwell in the belief that the clock is ticking and that the journey from birth to death is a journey to extinction; it is better to have a symptom than to have a void inside. We dimly sense that, like Alice James, the task of each of us is to ‘get myself dead’. But until we reach what Alice called ‘the vanishing point’ our symptoms lull us with all sorts of stories about our still living selves; our pain teaches us that we are alive, and our symptoms are the body’s speech, riddling and allegorical, full of overblown conceits and mixed metaphors. Ignore the message, and another will be produced, more brutal this time, to rot the liver or stop the heart.
—Hilary Mantel, “What is going on in there?”, London Review of Books